More Than Just Music

Louie Cruz Beltran performs live - and life - in L.A.

By Petra Etzl
Published on LatinoLA: September 10, 2002

More Than Just Music

Being a popular fixture in the top rankings of today?s music charts may rely partly on talent, but even more important is a willingness to submit to its ever-changing demands. Submission, however, has never been the style of musician, percussionist and bandleader Louie Cruz Beltran, be it in his music or his Mexican heritage. While his repertoire covers a multitude of genres, he'd rather explore the development of his own style at his own pace than to make his music more radio-friendly in order to sell.

This mix of energy and quality has attracted the attention of many -- most recently, world-renowned blues singer Barbara Morrison asked Beltran to open for her October 11th concert at Green Castle in Old Town Pasadena. Between now and this dream engagement for the California-native rumbero lie a number of local appearances in September.

One of them is a live show at Clancy?s in Glendale on September 13, which will be broadcast live on KKJZ FM 88.1. After that, an appearance at Spazio?s on September 16 and the Hollywood Park Casino on September 17 will give dance lovers plenty of opportunity to experience an evening of Latin jazz, samba, blends of R&B, Brazilian-style and Afro-Cuban rhythms led by Beltran and his timbales.

When asked which style he considers his niche, though, Beltran doesn?t need to think about it very long: ?Latin Jazz. It has to be ?cause I keep saying that and I know it in my heart. What I call Latin jazz is actually Afro-Cuban rhythms, 'cause that is the origin of Latin jazz to me. It doesn?t really come from the plena or Puerto Rico, it came from the cha cha cha, the mambo, the son ... that?s basically what I feel this rhythm came from: the rhumbas.?

Only moments after a quick interview at this year?s Latin Music Festival in Ojai, CA, Beltran takes over the stage to entertain the crowd of samba lovers with as much dedication and energy as he delivers on his more jazz-oriented debut CD "It?s My Time." The heat is draining and he?s missing a bongo player who has gotten lost along the way, but Beltran and his band don?t hesitate for a moment and deliver the same high-energy performance as always.

Beltran does have the best of both worlds while keeping his conscience in his cultural heritage, not limiting his dedication and engagement to just his music. Having grown up in California?s Kern County, Beltran remembers childhood summers working the fields with his family, leading him to become actively engaged in political demonstrations with the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez.

?I was a farm laborer.? Beltran recalls the harsh working conditions which he knows are still demanding today. ?I can relate to the hard work, hours and hours in the sun, very little money, suffering, and yet still finding a way to live... how can you turn your back to try to do something to better that situation? Any human being should do that.?

But Beltran?s involvement didn?t stop there. In 1985 he organized a relief concert for the earthquake victims of Mexico City, and still these days, Beltran often uses his music to support other causes close to his heart, such as Downs Syndrome, having a younger brother born with the disability, or to remind of the problems his people face with songs like "Mexodus," whose lyrics are displayed on Beltran?s web site at ?You know, racism, inequality of people, all of those things are very important to me in my life,? Beltran offers. ?They are, so they?re part of me.?

So is a deeply rooted spirituality which leads Beltran not just in such social engagements, but almost everything else he does as well: ?My God is really important to me, and I have Him to answer to.?

It was during one of the UFW demonstrations that Beltran met his first conga teacher, Jorge Claudio, and Beltran still remembers Claudio?s send-off into the music world as an ?unselfish gift.? Between Claudio?s first teachings before the backdrop of the struggling farm workers to his current position as bandleader in the elegant, air conditioned setting of L.A.?s jazz clubs, one can find yet more clues as to what makes Beltran such a well-rounded entertainer.

Beltran has fostered relations with many greats of the music world who recognized the value of his talent as a welcome addition to their performances and tours. Artists like Pete Escovedo, Luis Godoy Mejia and Mancotal, Coke Escovedo, Rita Coolidge, Eddie Money or Geraldo Tamez of the Folklorista de Mexico, just to name a few, have made use of Beltran?s percussion work.

But while always honored and awed by the multitude of talented stars he gets to work with, Beltran would not attribute his sound to the exposure to either them or the four different continents he visited throughout tours and musical studies in France.

Taking a quick break between sets, Beltran sits down for another round of questions at one of Spazio?s patio tables. Was it not for the constant attention given to him there by the people who stop by, one would be hard pressed to pick the evening?s leading man from the crowd as he sips his water and smiles at the question of whether he incorporates influences of different artists or countries into his own compositions.

?We don?t have that many lifetimes to be able to inundate ourselves with the actual study of this type of music,? he says, finally getting to answer. ?I find myself picking up the spiritual part of it, the feeling that I get, and then I will interpret that feeling into my music in some way or another but to think that I would come back [from an international tour] and have this intricate inner ability to totally get the whole meaning of music from outside my reality, my home town, my state of California, whatever you want to call it, my experiences, I should say, is not realistic.?

Although he was frequently called upon by the Hollywood industry for work on musical arrangements in film and television -- working with Luis Valdez as stage manager for a production of "Corridos" along with some film and television acting -- Beltran has kept his focus on what he truly feels destined for: his music, which he maneuvers with as much determination as all else in his life.

?The concept of being poor, no work and on drugs ... this romantic tragedy of a jazz musician, that doesn?t fly with me,? Beltran says about the roots of his creativity. ?A musician who is not content finds it difficult to be creative.?

It?s not just P.R. when Beltran explains that he sees being of ?good mind, spirit and physical health? as a performer?s responsibility ?because this thing called music and live performance draws a lot out of you.?

One wouldn?t know it from seeing the energetic entertainer buzz around the crowd after his performances when he acts out his philosophy of never separating himself from his audience. As much as it is a service to his adoring fans, it?s also a service to the artist himself who feels the best way of getting to know him is to attend one of his shows rather than piece together a picture of him based solely on media write-ups or occasional gossip among on-line groups.

Beltran values his audience to the point where he?s willing to spend time with the many people who approach him between his sets or after the show. Whether they simply ask questions or seek autographs, Beltran has the patience, time and, most notably, a warm smile and attentive demeanor with which he makes each person feel special.

Even those who do expect to get more than just a fleeting moment of Beltran?s time may not realize until much later that they have been led back to the appropriate distance while still feeling attended to. As much as he tries to accommodate everyone to an extent that exceeds many artists? willingness to share their time, he does draw the line at fans? attempts to get too involved in his personal life or leaving the realm of professionalism. ?The thing is not to hurt people,? Beltran explains. ?Every person is a vital part of this world. I really feel that.?

He doesn?t let questions about his family or private life make him feel crowded. ?If you know how to handle it, it?s like any other little inconvenience in life,? he adds.

What he will reveal about his family probably best explains his solid sense of self and the contentment with where he is at in his life and career. The balance he found for himself in this regard may not have come easy, but Beltran made it to a point where the fulfillment of his soul is more important than ?acquiring lots of money and fame.?

The subject visibly touches Beltran. He explains that considering whether to strive for a higher ranking in the more disenfranchising top of the music business versus finding an inner peace was once one of his personal battles which he?s grateful to have overcome.

Undoubtedly, the guidance found within his family is what made him the well-grounded man he is today. While he may have found inspiration from characters or celebrities on television as a child, the role models he credits with his success are his parents and siblings.

?Role models should come in first from the home,? he says. ?Youth needs the adults that are willing to take time to give information and to focus in on a child or youth and find out what they?re looking for as an individual.?

Beltran may be concentrating on passing the guidance he received from his home to the young members of his own family, but his unselfish interactions with those around him probably touch more people than he ever realizes.

Those who won?t get a chance to visit one of Beltran?s performances within the greater Los Angeles area can still get a glimpse into the facets of his life through "It?s My Time," but Beltran cautions not to take his debut CD as a complete reflection of what he?s all about. ?To anyone who wants to get to know me and my music - that is ongoing,? he explains.

Indeed, Beltran does plan on releasing another CD, probably within the next six months. As everything else, he does it at his own pace and with his own style. And, as everything else he does, it will most likely touch people. In its own style.

The CD It's My Time is available at select music stores in the L.A. area or can be ordered on the Louie Cruz Beltran web site at, which also gives details on upcoming performances.

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